With President Joe Biden in town Monday to describe his vision of a world in which cancer as we know it is a thing of the past, some of Massachusetts' top political, higher education and business leaders are hoping his administration will recognize the role the state could play in making that vision a reality.
The Coalition for Health Advances & Research in Massachusetts (CHARM) is the organized effort led by U.S. Rep. Richard Neal, Gov. Charlie Baker, the University of Massachusetts, the Mass. Biotechnology Council and others to convince the federal government to put the new Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health (ARPA-H) in Massachusetts. Modeled after the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the new agency was created by the Biden administration and funded with $1 billion that was included in legislation that passed in March.
And Massachusetts is among a handful of states that are openly jockeying for the opportunity to host the organization that is meant to "support transformative high-risk, high-reward research to drive biomedical and health breakthroughs."
"I think that the state is very well positioned. I think that the reputational value, certainly of Boston, in terms of medical breakthroughs is extraordinary. I think the other corresponding priority here is the need for venture capital and I think people understate just how important VC has become in the state of Massachusetts and particularly, again, in the Boston region," Neal said. He added, "I think that the galaxy that exists in Massachusetts is really second to none in the world and nevermind in the United States ... the whole galaxy, as I noted in my opening comments, is really stunning when you stop and think of what we have to offer."
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What Massachusetts has to offer is what Neal has called "an international hub for medical research and development" and what former state Sen. Joe Boncore, who now leads MassBIO, described as "the highest density of biopharma research and development in the country, supported by world-class talent, universities, hospitals, and other research institutions."
The state's academic and life sciences bona fides are reflected in the list of people and organizations on the CHARM Steering Committee: MassBIO, Massachusetts Hospital and Health Association, Association of Independent Colleges & Universities in Massachusetts, UMass, Boston University, Harvard University, Northeastern University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Vertex Pharmaceuticals, Massachusetts Competitive Partnership, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, Massachusetts Life Sciences Center, City of Boston and members of the Massachusetts Congressional delegation.
Competition for ARPA-H is expected to come from California, Texas, North Carolina, and other states. Neal said he expects the competition among states for the federal agency will be "pretty, pretty rigorous." Before a location is chosen, U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Xavier Becerra is expected to appoint a director for ARPA-H.
Neal said he thinks that the decision about where to put ARPA-H, right now, rests with Becerra. That might give Neal at least a direct line to the person who could make the final call; the congressman said he and the secretary are close, having spent two decades on the U.S. House Ways and Means Committee together.
"I think Secretary Becerra is going to have some considerable influence here and I'm guessing the White House will add input too," Neal said. "I don't think the president chose the Kennedy Library to talk about the cancer moonshot as a lark, I think he's quite earnest about it."
Biden is speaking Monday at the John F. Kennedy Library in Dorchester about his goal to cut the cancer death rate in half over the next 25 years and to "achieve this generation's moonshot -- not only to end cancer as we know it, but to change people's lives, improving their health, and decreasing the burden of the disease," White House spokeswoman Karine Jean-Pierre said.
An average of 37,499 Massachusetts residents were diagnosed with a cancer each year from 2013 through 2017 and an average of 12,803 Bay Staters died of cancer each year in that span, according to the most recent state cancer incidence report.